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Entry updated 22 July 2019. Tagged: Theme.

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Sf stories based on serious speculations about future means of transportation are greatly outnumbered by stories in which those means function as facilitating devices – i.e., as convenient ways of shifting characters into an alien environment. Inevitably, the same kinds of machines crop up in both categories of story because stories of the second kind borrow heavily from those of the first. Spaceships have been employed by sf writers almost exclusively as a literary device; few stories deal speculatively with the real possibilities of interplanetary and interstellar transportation. Much fruitless argument has been wasted comparing the plausibility of machines designed for quite different literary functions. One such argument, of long standing, concerns the relative merits of the space-gun in Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon (1865-1870: trans 1873) and the Antigravity device in H G Wells's The First Men in the Moon (1901), which tends to ignore the fact that only the former device aspires (unsuccessfully) to practicability.

In Fantastic Voyages written before the mid-nineteenth century virtually all modes of transport were facilitating devices. John Wilkins, fascinated by ideas of novel means of transportation, had discussed submarines, flying machines and land-yachts at some length in Mathematicall Magick (1648), but he touched only tentatively on the possibility of adapting new Power Sources to the business of transport. Today, the short-sightedness of the anonymous The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925 (1763), which is optimistic about the bright future of the canal barge, seems slightly absurd; but the author of the book lived in a world in which there had been no significant advance in motive power for 2000 years. This situation underwent a revolutionary change in the nineteenth century.

The first practical steamboat, The Charlotte Dundas, was built in 1801, but it was not until the development of the screw propeller in 1843 for the Great Britain, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel (1806-1859) and placed in service in January 1845, that the revolution in marine transport really began. Richard Trevithick (1771-1833) built the first practical steam locomotive in 1804, but only in 1825, with the opening of the Stockton-Darlington railway, did there begin the railroad revolution which very rapidly extended itself across Europe and the emergent USA. It is understandable that the speculative writers of the later nineteenth century should find the future of transportation one of their most inspiring themes, and that authors of the numerous Utopias published in the latter years of the century often focused – not necessarily with much precision – upon advances in transportation, frequently driven by electricity. Their trust in electricity as a direct motive power now seems naive, for the transport revolution was soon dominated by the development of the internal combustion engine, and entered a new phase in 1909, when Henry Ford (1863-1947) set his Model-T production line rolling. By then the first heavier-than-air flying machines were in operation, as were the first practicable submarines. Everything that has happened since in the world of transportation was within the imaginative sights of the writers of 1909: private motor cars for all; fast aeroplanes to carry passengers and freight; even Spaceships (Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published "The Probing of Space by Means of Jet Devices" in 1903).

The man whose literary work stands as the principal imaginative product of this era of revolution is Jules Verne, whose first novel was Five Weeks in a Balloon (1863; trans "William Lackland" 1869). This was the period that made tourism possible, and Verne remains the archetypal tourist of the literary imagination. He was fascinated by the machines that made far travelling practical, and wrote a memoir of a real voyage on the Great Eastern: "A Floating City" (in coll 1871; trans 1874). The submarine Nautilus is the real protagonist of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870; trans Lewis Mercier 1872), just as the "aeronef" is of The Clipper of the Clouds (1886; trans 1887; vt Robur the Conqueror 1887). Around the World in 80 Days (1873: trans Geo M Towle 1874) inspired many imitators, literary and actual, but few of the literary ones had Verne's fascination with means: most of them invented marvellous devices simply to enable the characters to participate in exotic adventure stories whose plots were thoroughly routine – a kind of inventiveness ironically celebrated by such latter-day Scientific Romances as Michael Moorcock's The Warlord of the Air (1971) and its sequels, and Christopher Priest's The Space Machine (1976).

Submarines and Airships were most often invoked in futuristic fiction as carriers of Weapons and other materials of Future War. It quickly became obvious to military observers of the US Civil War in 1861-1865 that observation balloons, ironclad ships and railroads would transform the tactics and logistics of warfare. Writers like George Griffith took a particular delight in imagining the kind of battles which might be fought with Airships and submarines, greatly assisted by the illustrator and occasional sf writer Fred T Jane. Other illustrators, most notably Albert Robida, likewise became entranced by flying machines, usually driven by electricity. Wells's speculations about the future of transportation technology are mainly concerned with warfare – most spectacularly, the aerial battles in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899; rev vt The Sleeper Awakes 1910) and The War in the Air (1908). In The Shape of Things to Come (1933) he imagined the rebirth of a world devastated by wars under the aegis of a benevolent "Air Dictatorship", a notion anticipated by Rudyard Kipling's Pax Aeronautica stories of the Aerial Board of Control, With the Night Mail (November 1905 McClure's; rev 1909 chap) and "As Easy as A.B.C." (March-April 1912 The London Magazine). Kipling's ideas were echoed in Michael Arlen's Man's Mortality (1933), and the technological charisma of the aeroplane is evident also in Zodiak (trans Eric Sutton 1931) by Walther Eidlitz. This mystique carried over into the early sf Pulp magazines: Hugo Gernsback founded Air Wonder Stories to deal exclusively with the future of flight. Pulp-sf writers interested in facilitating devices were soon ready to take extreme liberties. The Faster-than-Light starship had arrived before the end of the 1920s, as had the ultimate in personal transport, the antigravity-belt featured in the Buck Rogers stories by Philip Francis Nowlan. Matter Transmission soon became commonplace; and some interplanetary romances of the kind pioneered by Edgar Rice Burroughs simply ignored the whole issue, tacitly employing the most blatant facilitating device of all: Teleportation. Such methods began to receive more detailed speculative evaluation in Jack Williamson's "The Cosmic Express" (November 1930 Amazing), but not until Alfred Bester's Tiger! Tiger! (October 1956-January 1957 Galaxy as "The Stars My Destination"; 1956; rev vt The Stars My Destination US; rev 1996) was there a serious attempt to imagine a society which uses teleportation as a routine means of travel.

Attempts to imagine the eventual social effects of the transportation revolution soon appeared in the pulps, though in no way could it be claimed that these offerings displayed much prescience (see Futures Studies; Prediction) about the deeply revolutionary impact of motor vehicles on the twentieth century. It is in fact difficult to find before around 1970 any telling presentation – in words or Illustration – of the all-encompassing physical imprint upon the planet of that revolution; or (in particular) any dramatic prevision of the demographic transformation of America. When they dealt with motor vehicles at all, sf stories rarely extended beyond mild exercises in Horror in SF, with cars being anthropomorphized or demonized: as though individual vehicles were the proper focus for sf writers purporting to bring to life the consequences, for good or ill, of technological Progress. This diversion of focus – which might be described as a proleptic Amnesia – may help explain the absence of any genuine Conceptual Breakthroughs in stories dealing with the motor vehicle and the vast swathes of this Earth it colonizes. Almost the only exception to this rule is what may be the first significant sf tale about the subject. In David H Keller's Lamarckian Dystopia, "The Revolt of the Pedestrians" (February 1928 Amazing), a ruling elite of automobilists, having lost the use of its legs, is overthrown by the underprivileged pedestrians, though the story is in fact more a typical early-sf diatribe against the City than it is an analysis of the automobile. Further stories in which the motor car appears as topic (or, less fortunately, as quasi-animate subject) include satirical comedies like Clark Ashton Smith's "The Great God Awto" (February 1940 Thrilling Wonder), Isaac Asimov's "Sally" (May/June 1953 Fantastic) and Robert F Young's "Romance in a Twenty-First Century Used-Car Lot" (November 1960 F&SF) through blacker comedies like Fritz Leiber's "X Marks the Pedwalk" (April 1963 Worlds of Tomorrow) and dourer analyses like Ray Bradbury's The Pedestrian (7 August 1951 The Reporter; 1964 chap), H Chandler Elliott's "A Day on Death Highway" (October 1963 Galaxy) and John Jakes's surreal On Wheels (1973) to such extreme quasi-apocalyptic works as Ben Elton's Gridlock (1991) and the book-length poem Autogeddon (1991) by Heathcote Williams, both these texts being far more violent diatribes than it is easy to find in the Genre SF world. The car also features as a death-machine in macabre stories of future Games and Sports, in such stories as Harlan Ellison's "Dogfight on 101" (August 1969 Adam; vt "Along the Scenic Route" in The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World, coll 1969), the film Death Race 2000 (1975) and Richard Morgan's Market Forces (2004). A classic early exercise in sf realism is Robert A Heinlein's "The Roads Must Roll" (June 1940 Astounding), which deals with the commuter chaos resulting from a strike by the engineers who maintain moving roadways; such moving ways also appear incidentally in C M Kornbluth's The Syndic (December 1953-March 1954 Science Fiction Adventures; 1953) and – explored in considerable sociological detail – Isaac Asimov's The Caves of Steel (1954).

Other notable sf stories attempting to get to grips with the idea of social revolution brought about through transport deploy some kind of Matter Transmission (which see) in a quasi-symbolic fashion; notable stories in this vein include "Ticket to Anywhere" (April 1952 Galaxy) by Damon Knight and "Granny Won't Knit" (May 1954 Galaxy) by Theodore Sturgeon. Robert Silverberg's anthology Three Trips in Time and Space (anth 1973) contains novellas on the theme: Larry Niven's "Flash Crowd", Jack Vance's "Rumfuddle" and John Brunner's "You'll Take the High Road". Niven later continued the theme in four further stories, and Brunner developed it in a novel, Web of Everywhere (1974).

Early sf about transportation infrastructure is mostly concerned with Underground tunnels. Hugo Gernsback was an early adopter of the notion that the shortest transport route between two points on Earth's surface is a straight tunnel forming a chord of our world's roughly circular cross-section, as explained with an accompanying diagram in Ralph 124C 41+: A Romance of the Year 2660 (April 1911-March 1912 Modern Electrics; exp as fixup 1925; rev 1950). More realistically, versions of the Channel Tunnel have often featured in UK Invasion stories prior to its actual construction, while a transatlantic tunnel is the subject of Bernhard Kellermann's The Tunnel (1913; trans 1915) and the films based on it, Der Tunnel (1933) and The Tunnel (1935). The idea reappears in modern sf in Ray Nelson's "Turn Off the Sky" (August 1963 F&SF) and is the theme of Harry Harrison's Alternate-History satire Tunnel through the Deeps (1972; vt A Transatlantic Tunnel, Hurrah! 1972). A popular variations on this theme involves digging or boring vehicles that create their own tunnels en route, as in numerous tales ranging from Fred Thorpe's Through the Earth; Or, Jack Nelson's Invention (5 June-7 August 1897 Golden Hours as "In the World Below; Or, Three Boys in the Center of the Earth"; 1909) to James Blaylock's The Digging Leviathan (1984; rev 1988). More futuristically, one tiny subgenre of subterranean transport avoids physical tunnelling by use of Matter Penetration (which see).

Early stories about artificial Islands in the Atlantic to facilitate the refuelling of aeroplanes, such as Curt Siodmak's F.P.1 Does Not Reply (trans 1933), filmed as F.P.1 Antwortet Nicht (1932), were soon out of date. The problems of laying railroad tracks on a highly volcanic alien world are featured in "The Railways up on Cannis" (October 1959 New Worlds) by Colin Kapp. An Underground railway system not unlike the London Underground is the only exit route from the domed City of Arthur C Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956); a bizarre alien equivalent must be comprehended in Colin Kapp's "The Subways of Tazoo" (in New Writings in SF 3, anth 1965, ed John Carnell); a particularly deep example is the setting for the climax of Iain M Banks's Consider Phlebas (1987). Further railways feature in China Miéville's Iron Council (2004) and – rather more surreally – Railsea (2012). Trains thread the deserts of a magic-realist Mars in Ian McDonald's Ares Express (2001), and with the help of Matter Transmission gateways cross the space between the worlds of different star-systems in Peter F Hamilton's Pandora's Star (2004) and Judas Unchained (2005).

There are numerous sf stories which involve improvised means of transport adapted to exotic situations. Jack Vance is particularly ingenious in devising such inventions, although they rarely play a major part in his plots. Ice-yachts take centre stage in Moorcock's The Ice Schooner (1969) and Alan Dean Foster's Icerigger (1974), and ships which travel on unwatery media are also featured in David J Lake's Walkers on the Sky (1976), Bruce Sterling's Involution Ocean (1977) and Brian P Herbert's Sudanna, Sudanna (1985). The strangest vehicles ever devised are perhaps those in Robert Wilfred Franson's The Shadow of the Ship (1983), in which trails through airless "subspace" link primitive planets, and can be used only by Starships that are effectively sleds drawn by vast animals. The largest sf vehicles vary widely in size, depending somewhat on actual definition: should they be entirely artificial or may they incorporate natural structures up to and including planets? Of note are the spacefaring Cities of James Blish's Cities in Flight series (omni 1970) and the much more laborious moving city in Priest's The Inverted World (1974); very many converted Asteroids, as in George Zebrowski's Macrolife (1979; rev 1990); dirigible planets, as in E E Smith's Lensman series and in (again) Cities in Flight, with a whole fleet of artificial worlds featuring in Greg Bear's debut novel Hegira (1979; rev 1987); further assorted World Ships (which see); and Macrostructures like the Dyson Sphere of Bob Shaw's Orbitsville sequence, which ultimately proves to be a vehicle of inter-universal travel. An abundance of technical detail supports Hilbert Schenck's memorable account of the circumnavigation of the globe by a steam-powered aeroplane in "Steam Bird" (April-May 1984 F&SF; title story of coll 1988).

In spite of such bold adventures, it cannot really be said that sf has been particularly adept in the invention of new means of transportation that have subsequently proved practicable, aside from a number of devices concerned with space technology – including, of course, space Rockets. Arthur C Clarke proved particularly expert in this regard, and there remain several imaginative devices used in his stories which may one day be actualized, including the lunar transport in A Fall of Moondust (1961) and the spacefaring Solar-Wind-powered yachts of "Sunjammer" (March 1964 Boys' Life; vt "The Wind from the Sun" in The Wind from the Sun, coll 1972), the latter developing a notion first put forward in 1921 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Clarke's The Fountains of Paradise (1979) and Charles Sheffield's The Web Between the Worlds (1979) both deploy Space Elevators connecting the Earth's surface to orbital stations – a wonderful idea whose practical limitations are, alas, mercilessly exposed in Sheffield's own article "How to Build a Beanstalk" (August 1979 Destinies). [BS/DRL]

see also: Communications; Ship of Fools; Under the Sea.


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